The history of women’s swimwear

Swimwear has evolved enormously throughout history, with styles and trends reflecting changing societal norms, technological advancements, and fashion movements. The history of women’s swimwear is particularly fascinating, as it maps onto larger trends in women’s history, including the fight for equality and liberation. As you dive into the world of bathing suits, you will discover a rich tapestry of design innovations, historical milestones, and cultural shifts.

The 19th Century – Modesty and Mobility

The 19th century marked the beginning of a significant shift in women’s swimwear. Before this time, swimming was largely a male-dominated activity, with women often simply bathing in their undergarments. The 19th century saw the creation of the first purpose-designed women’s bathing suits, which were designed with a focus on modesty.

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These early swimsuits typically consisted of bloomer-style trousers and knee-length dresses, often made from heavy, dark-colored flannel. The material was chosen to ensure the suit remained opaque when wet, while the style aimed to restrict the visibility of women’s bodies. However, these designs posed a significant challenge in the water, as they were cumbersome and heavy, making swimming difficult.

By the late 19th century, women’s swimsuits had evolved slightly to offer more mobility. The popular style at the time was a one-piece garment that covered the torso and extended down to the mid-thigh. This allowed women greater freedom in the water, while still adhering to the era’s strict standards of modesty.

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The Early 20th Century – A Time of Change

The early 20th century saw a significant loosening of societal norms surrounding women’s swimwear. Bathing costumes began to reveal more of the female form, reflecting broader changes in societal attitudes towards female modesty and sexuality.

A key innovation during this period was the introduction of the tank suit. This one-piece swimsuit was sleeveless and cut high on the leg, offering women unprecedented freedom in the water. The style quickly became popular for its practicality and ease of movement, and it was soon adopted by competitive swimmers.

This era also saw the birth of beach culture, with more people flocking to seaside resorts for leisure and entertainment. As such, swimwear began to take on a more fashionable role, with designers introducing brighter colors and more stylish cuts to appeal to the fashion-conscious woman.

The Mid-20th Century – The Bikini Revolution

The mid-20th century heralded a significant revolution in the world of women’s swimwear with the creation of the bikini. Named after the Bikini Atoll, where the United States conducted nuclear tests, the bikini was as explosive as its namesake, shaking up societal norms and expectations.

The bikini was radically different from anything that had come before. It was a two-piece swimsuit that exposed the stomach, a significant departure from the modest, full-coverage designs of the past. Initially, the bikini was met with shock and resistance, and it was even banned in some countries.

However, the bikini soon gained popularity, fueled in part by the increasing sexual liberation of women and the rise of beach culture. In addition, the bikini was adopted by Hollywood, with stars like Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot popularizing the style on the big screen. By the end of the 1960s, the bikini had become a standard piece of women’s swimwear.

The Late 20th Century – Diversity and Choice

The late 20th century saw an explosion of diversity and choice in women’s swimwear. From the athletic-inspired competitive swimsuits to the fashion-forward designer pieces, there was a bathing suit to suit every woman’s style, body type, and swimming needs.

This era saw the introduction of new styles, such as the string bikini, the monokini, and the tankini. New materials were also introduced, including Lycra and Spandex, which allowed for better fit and increased durability.

Furthermore, the late 20th century saw a greater emphasis on body positivity and inclusivity in swimwear design. Brands began to offer a wider range of sizes and styles to accommodate different body types, while also promoting messages of body acceptance and self-love.

The 21st Century – Looking Forward

The 21st century has continued the trend towards diversity and inclusivity in women’s swimwear. Today, women can choose from a wide array of styles, from skimpy bikinis to full-coverage burkinis, reflecting the diverse needs and preferences of modern women.

Moreover, the 21st century has seen a growing emphasis on sustainable and ethical fashion, with many swimwear brands adopting eco-friendly materials and fair labor practices. This trend towards sustainability is likely to continue shaping the swimwear industry in the years to come.

In conclusion, the history of women’s swimwear is a testament to the resilience and creativity of women. From the modest bathing costumes of the 19th century to the daring bikinis of the 20th century, each era of swimwear reflects the values, challenges, and triumphs of the time. As we move forward, it’s exciting to think about what the future holds for this ever-evolving industry.

The Evolution of Materials and Design

Throughout the history of women’s swimwear, fabric technology has played a crucial role in shaping the design and functionality of bathing suits. In the 19th century, heavy flannel was the go-to fabric, which, while maintaining modesty, proved to be impractical for swimming. The turn of the 20th century saw the introduction of lighter, more flexible materials, such as silk and satin, which not only improved mobility in the water but also introduced a sleeker, more form-fitting aesthetic to swimwear design.

The 1920s brought a significant innovation with the introduction of latex and rayon, which were stretchy and quick-drying, a perfect combination for swimwear. These materials facilitated the creation of tighter, more streamlined one-piece suits, which were popularized by Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman. Getty Images from this era show these suits highlighting the female form, a radical departure from the modest bathing gowns of the previous century.

The biggest breakthrough, however, came in the late 20th century with the invention of synthetic fabrics like Lycra and Spandex. These materials revolutionized the swimwear industry. Not only were they lightweight and water-resistant, they also had the ability to stretch and recover, providing a better fit and increased durability. This allowed for the introduction of a variety of new styles, from the high cut one-piece swimsuit to the high waisted bikini.

In the 21st century, the focus has shifted towards sustainability. Many swimwear brands are now using eco-friendly materials, such as recycled nylon and polyester, in their designs. This reflects the growing awareness of the environmental impact of fashion and the importance of promoting sustainable practices.

The Influence of Culture and Society

The evolution of women’s swimwear is not only a story of technological advancements and fashion trends but also a reflection of changing cultural and societal norms. In the 19th century, the modesty of women was highly valued, and this was reflected in the design of bathing suits. Women wore bathing gowns and used bathing machines, wheeled huts that allowed them to enter the sea without being seen in their bathing attire.

The early 20th century saw a loosening of these stringent norms. The rise of beach culture and the increasing popularity of outdoor recreational activities led to a demand for more practical and comfortable swimwear. The tank suit, a one-piece swimsuit that offered greater freedom of movement, was a popular choice among women in the United States and Europe.

However, the most significant cultural shift came in the mid-20th century with the introduction of the bikini. Despite initial backlash, the bikini became popular, reflecting the increasing sexual liberation of women and the breaking down of societal taboos surrounding the female body.

Today, cultural diversity and inclusivity are key influences in the design of women’s swimwear. Styles such as the burkini cater to women who wish to maintain modesty for religious reasons, while the rise of the body positivity movement has led to a greater variety of sizes and styles being available, promoting the message that every body is a beach body.


The history of women’s swimwear is rich and diverse, reflecting changing societal norms, technological advancements, and fashion trends. From the modest bathing gowns of the 19th century to the high cut, form-fitting designs of the 21st century, each era has left its mark on this evolving industry. As we move forward, it will be interesting to see how current trends such as sustainability and inclusivity shape the future of women’s swimwear. With the resilience and creativity shown by women throughout history, there’s no doubt that the future holds exciting developments in store.

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